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The Last Warhol

A single painting encapsulates the artist's gadfly influence

Appropriately, Warhol's last series dealt with a person who was both superstar and daily bread of one of the most powerful hagiographies in the world: Christ. Certainly Warhol's double reproduction in Camouflage Last Supper is intended to suggest both sameness of meaning and loss of meaning in media representation, but the entire effect -- the overlay of religious and military power -- is so potent that meaninglessness could hardly have been his intent. Rather, Warhol presents cultural and aesthetic realities in such a deadpan, mechanical manner that we are forced to confront the images and, through his reproductive and painterly technique, to think about how the media -- as well as institutions -- diffuse their impact in our daily lives.

All of this enters into the series of Last Supper paintings, which was commissioned by Alexander Iolas, a leading art dealer known as a champion of the European Surrealists. Iolas' broad knowledge and adventuresome spirit helped form the core of the Menil Collection, and Iolas was responsible for Warhol's first one-man exhibition, of graphic work in New York in 1952. In 1986 Iolas organized an exhibition of the Last Supper paintings in a gallery across the street from the church refectory that contains Leonardo's fresco -- it was to be the last one-man show of Warhol's work during the artist's lifetime. The Warhol exhibit opened in Milan the same day that the prohibition against the public's visiting the Last Supper chapel took effect. Writer Pierre Restany was in Milan at the time; later he recalled his surprise when Warhol asked him, "Do you believe that the Italians are conscious of the respect I have for Leonardo?"

Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper is known largely through prettified versions that conceal its condition. But even while Leonardo was alive it had started to deteriorate because of humidity. It also suffered from brutal Napoleonic soldiers and from monks who cut a door in it. In 1943, Allied bombs almost destroyed the vaulted ceiling above the painting. For the most part, its figures are ghosts.

Leonardo also bypassed the traditional meaning of the Last Supper in Christian art. He was not the least concerned with the institution of the Eucharist or with the mystery of the sacrificial death in which the Apostles participated and to which many of them would themselves succumb. Leonardo was interested in a single aspect of the narrative: instead of designating the betrayer, he showed the explosive effect of the announcement at the feast. As if by inexorable law, the revelation factors the number twelve into four groups of three, the number of the Trinity. Christ, the divider, appears as the center of light and space, the vanishing point of the perspective. Leonardo exploited the mathematical unity to make the divisions of his composition immediately significant to his viewers and to create order out of dramatic confusion.

In Warhol's hands the composition is served by the cartoonish camouflage forms. Some forms look like wiggling fish or ducks in flight; others carve up the space like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle, highlighting important figures. St. Thomas' pointing finger looks disembodied, floating inside a beige camouflage shape. The head of Christ is defined by a loopy gray "boomerang" that slips halfway down His face in its double image. The bombshell impact of the announcement congeals as a sort of black cloud emerging from the bottom edge of the painting and billowing in the center. The cloud is produced by the shadows under the two tables melding with the conjoined edge of the two scenes.

If, in Warhol's version, the figures appear as ghostly as they do in the original, it's because Warhol reportedly worked from kitsch; his secondary sources included a white plastic maquette of the Last Supper that was found in a gas station on the New Jersey Turnpike, a published line drawing based on the composition, and a large Italian-made bisque figural group picked up in a Manhattan shop. (In a recent issue of Time magazine, critic Robert Hughes couldn't resist taking a swipe at Warhol's kitsch factor when another version of his painting failed to sell at auction: "The true mystery is who on earth could have actually wanted to own a 31-foot pastiche of Leonardo's Last Supper overlaid with green camouflage patterns. Is some Christian fundamentalist group planning to open a restaurant?")

But, for the Menil Collection, Camouflage Last Supper represents the de Menil family's long-standing commitment to the artist, a relationship which began in the mid-1960s. The Collection owns 23 Warhol drawings and paintings (including Warhol's double Mona Lisa) as well as a selection of prints. The Collection's 1968 portrait of Jermayne MacAgy was one of Warhol's first major portrait commissions. Moreover, the Dia Center, formed by German-born art dealer Heiner Friedrich and his wife, Philippa de Menil (daughter of Dominique de Menil), has amassed close to 80 Warhol objects, plus the spectacular 102-panel Shadow series. The Dia Foundation is centrally involved with the Warhol Museum, as are the Andy Warhol Center for the Visual Arts and the Carnegie Institute of Pittsburgh.

Although Warhol once deadpanned that "church is a fun place to go," there's little doubt that his devotion to Catholicism -- a religion that requires great personal attention to repetitive ritual -- was an influence on his art. Did the fundamental importance of religion in his work also have roots in superstition, perhaps in style and fashion, or even in the 1980s penchant for appropriation? It may simply come down to a major characteristic of Warhol's art, namely, the representation of inflated products and an embracing of overproduction. What Warhol gleaned from the church, as well as from mass culture, was that the only position to take is one that dictates that the replica replaces the original. Not only does Warhol continue to make us aware of the manipulation inherent in images, signs and notions of progress, he challenges the way those images and thought processes feed into our late 20th-century, post-industrial, capitalistic society.

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